It’s been a long day and you’re finally settled on the couch to watch the season finale of your favorite television series. The dramatic conclusion is moments away when, without warning, someone changes the channel to check a sports score. Frustrating, right? Well, that’s how a young child feels when she’s building the world’s tallest tower and you say, “Put the blocks away; we need to go now.”

Sudden change is hard – for you and for young children. But you likely don’t cry and flop on the ground when the television channel gets switched… because you’re an adult with a grown-up brain that can adapt to an unannounced change of plans. A 4-year-old, however, doesn’t yet have the emotional control or reasoning skills to know that an abrupt interruption isn’t catastrophic. To him, it might be!

Young children thrive on predictability and repetition. You’ve likely noticed the smiles and giggles when you get to the chorus of a song they know. When children have an idea about what’s going to happen next, anxiety is minimized, and they can relax, play, and explore. Sudden, unpredictable changes can confuse them and create stress that results in a meltdown.

To make change a little less scary for children, here are some transition tips for helping them cope:

  • Talk to the child about what’s going to happen. If you know something’s coming up that will cut the child’s play short, give him a heads-up. “We’re going to the park today, so you will have a shorter time to build with your blocks. I’ll tell you when it’s time to put our coats on. You’ll be able to finish building when we return from the park.” This helps the child not only be warned that a change is coming but also assures him that he can resume his play later.
  • Protect the child’s routines. As much as possible, keep children’s daily routines the same. Bedtimes, meal times, and other daily rituals provide children with safe and stable foundations for coping with the bigger changes that might occur, such as moving to a new home or the arrival of a sibling.
  • Avoid too many transition times. Young children love being engaged in meaningful activities they’re interested in. Transitioning them from one activity to another too often makes it difficult for them to process new ideas and will likely result in challenging behaviors.
  • Use a sand timer or another signal to help children understand the concept of time. Time is meaningless to a 4-year-old. If you tell her she has 10 minutes before bedtime, she will likely still fall apart when you tell her it’s time for bed. Using a timer prepares her for a change using a visual cue she can follow.

We live in a fast-paced world. Channels get changed, but life goes on. With a little support, preschoolers will ease into the halls of change with confidence knowing that block towers may topple but the one thing that remains the same – always – is your loving care.

About the author

Cheryl Flanders, M.Ed.

Cheryl is a seasoned educator and writer, having worked in the field of education for over 25 years. Cheryl has taught high school and college courses and has also served as an elementary school principal. Most recently, Cheryl retired from her full-time position as Manager of Teacher Preparation for the corporate offices of KinderCare Education in Portland, Oregon. There she developed training for over 25,000 early childhood teachers that KinderCare employs nationwide.

Cheryl and her husband now reside in Boise, Idaho, where she is a mom; a grandma; and an active author, speaker, and early childhood consultant. Having suffered the loss of a child three years ago, Cheryl’s passion is to use both her personal and professional experiences to provide hope and inspiration to families and teachers working with young children. She believes that the best vehicle for helping children… is to look through their eyes.

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